- Monster movie but, you know, with deep characters
In Dark Was the Night, human irresponsibility drives a vicious monster into the small town of Maiden Woods, where it begins to hunt the townsfolk. It’s up to Sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) and Deputy Donny Saunders (Lukas Haas) to figure out what’s going on and save the townsfolk from becoming monster dinner. It’s a familiar enough formula, whether it’s spiders or rabbits, shrews or grabboids. But this time, the monster takes a back seat to the personal trauma of the main characters, all of whom seem one spilled water-glass away from an emotional meltdown.
Let’s talk about Maiden Woods for a bit. A sign tells us the population is 243, which is a tiny town. The smallest town I have ever spent much time in was Emory, Virginia, with a population of 1,300. Downtown consists of two blocks on only one side of the street. A couple of tiny restaurants serve the liberal arts college on the other side of the road. Policing is handled by the county sheriff’s department. There are no town services to speak of. Maiden Woods, on the other hand, has its own sheriff. And a deputy. And a police cruiser with a computer in it. A gorgeous historic church. A nice park. A two-story bar with polished wood counters and brass fixtures. An apparently-thriving commercial district. A school that actually has grade levels.
And yet, when the townspeople gather in the church at the end of the movie, they barely fill three pews.
Usually, I wouldn’t stress these kinds of details in a monster movie. But the director, Jack Heller, intends to contemplate the Human Condition. Sheriff Shields is estranged from his wife and facing a crisis of confidence following one of his children’s tragic accidental death. Saunders is running away from the big city, where he was wounded in the line of duty. There’s also something about the importance of religious faith here, but Heller backs off it in the crunch. When the movie takes itself this seriously, the details bug me.
The acting is fine — good, even. But someone seems to have not had much faith in the actors because many emotionally weighty scenes are run in slow-motion. Creature effects are minimal. The climactic encounter with the monster recalls Resident Evil: Apocalypse a little too much to maintain a straight face. And while the beast is wicked fast and super-strong, it seems really careful not to kill any character with a name.
Ultimately the script really can’t support the weight of its themes. The old-reliable Indian Stories make an appearance. Several people tell Sheriff Shields that everyone has faith in his leadership, despite all evidence to the contrary. Even the sheriff’s name is a bit on-the-nose. I absolutely think horror is a genre capable of exploring complex human situations, but this movie doesn’t hit that mark. As a result, it is less effective than many older, less earnest films fifty years older.